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*spoilers for Us ahead
Us is a true rarity in the current cinematic landscape. The sophomore effort from the writer-director of Get Out Jordan Peele is a strange unsettling horror about a family terrorised by doppelgangers that also doubles (excuse the pun) as an entertaining, often quite funny Spielbergian blockbuster.
On top of featuring stunning dual performances from the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, there’s much to praise about the film. It’s score by Michael Abels is both haunting and beautiful like the menacing doppelgangers stalking the movie’s central family. Peele’s script is wildly ambitious, touching upon so many themes that it makes Us feel like a Rorschach test of a movie, from which each viewer will take their own interpretation. That said, it’s also a very tight screenplay, wringing all it can out of its ingenious premise and no more, as well as allowing the filmmaker to stage a handful of muscular, thrilling sequences.
As evident from Peele’s pre-Get Out work and interviews with the writer-director, he is very cine literate. He loves horror movies and like Quentin Tarantino takes elements from films that inspired him, planting homages to them in his own work. This article explores some of the classics that Peele seems to have drawn from while making Us.
‘Mirror Image’, The Twilight Zone (1960)
“Obscure and metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomena. Reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained. Call it ‘parallel planes’ or just ‘insanity’. Whatever it is, you will find it in the Twilight Zone,” – Rod Serling, ‘Mirror Image’
Jordan Peele’s next gig after directing Us will be as producer and narrator for the 2019 reboot of classic anthology series The Twilight Zone. Premiering in the US April 1, fans of horror and sci-fi should be excited. Peele’s movies so far have been stand-alone stories centred on everyday people finding themselves in surreal, disturbing situations – a staple for the series. Meanwhile, there’s also the fact the writer-director cites an early entry in the programme as the basis for Us.
‘Mirror Image’ feels like a story that could be happening in the background of Peele’s latest film. A woman waiting at a bus station approaches the station master to ask a question. He scolds her, telling her to stop asking even though this is the first time they have spoken. After a few similar interactions, the woman starts to believe she is being stalked by a double of herself.
Still creepy nearly 60 years after it premiered, the paranoid atmosphere of ‘Mirror Image’ is all over the first act of Us – centring on Nyong’o’s character Adelaide and her fear of impending doom. It’s clear Peele used this Twilight Zone episode’s hook as a jumping-off point, fleshing it out and using it to explore themes that interest him.
Watch ‘Mirror Image’ on Dailymotion here. Meanwhile, check out the trailer for the new Twilight Zone series below.
Funny Games (1997, 2007)
It’s quite funny Michael Haneke made this grim thriller about a nice family who get terrorised by two sadistic young men twice to criticise those who enjoy horror films, only for it to spawn a quite popular sub-genre of horror – the home invasion thriller. While other movies of this type like Hush, The Strangers and You’re Next might be more enjoyable, it’s this Austrian movie (or its American shot-for-shot remake) which sticks with the viewer and feels like the biggest influence on Us.
Not only does Winston Duke’s dad in Us get hit in the leg in the exact same place as the father in Funny Games, Peele – like Haneke – really lingers on the terror of the intruders’ break-in. He does not use many cuts, just letting the camera roll and roll. However, while Haneke did this to de-glamorise violence – to make his audience question why they would want to be shown such suffering, Peele sees horror in a less literal way. The American director understands that most people like the genre not because they love violence but because it is cathartic and exhilarating to see one’s worst fears play out on-screen from the comfort and safety of their cinema seat.
“We are our own worst enemy” – Us tagline
Us plays with the notion of its doppelganger antagonists – dubbed ‘The Tethered’ – being metaphors for the dark, supressed sides of its protagonists. After all, with their strange voices, slightly off-kilter looks (e.g. no eye-brows) and stilted movement, they resemble warped copies of our heroes.
However, as the movie progresses we learn they too are victims, created by the U.S. government in an attempt to control the public, but later abandoned underground when their purpose had been fulfilled. While the violence they inflict in the horror is shocking and horrifying, the more the film progresses viewers start to wonder: ‘Would I do the same in The Tethered’s position? Could I be capable of inflicting such pain? The answer. Probably.
For a movie that explores this duality of the human condition further, see Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 thriller Enemy about a repressed history teacher who discovers that he has a sexually reckless doppelganger – both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As the movie moves forward to its strange unforgettable conclusion, the lines between the two central characters become so blurred and one starts to think – are these just literally two sides of the same person.
They Live (1988)
Us opens with a flashback to the 80s where young Adelaide is watching TV. She sees an ad for Hands Across America, a real publicity campaign in which 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes across the United States, to fight hunger and homelessness. It was such a huge event that even American President at the time Ronald Reagan took part.
There is a hypocrisy in regards Reagan’s involvement that Peele appears to be exposing. The President’s economic politics (Reaganomics) mostly involved tightening the country’s money supply while rewarding wealthy businesses, widening the income gap between the rich and the poor. The Tethered in Us – who come from underground – appear to represent an under class seeking revenge for their mistreatment throughout the years. When Adelaide asks her counterpart what she is, she gets the reply: “We’re Americans”. And the movie concludes with The Tethered staging their own version of Hands Across America.
Another sci-fi film fiercely critical of the Reagan era is John Carpenter’s They Live. A drifter (Roddy Piper) and a poor construction worker (Keith David) discover a box of sunglasses – the eye-wear showing the world for what it truly is. They discover America is run by aliens who hate the poor – bulldozing the shanty town in which the protagonists live – and use subliminal stimuli to make humans ‘obey, consume, reproduce and conform’.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
“I remember seeing The People Under the Stairs on VHS and thinking to myself: ‘This movie has a black child actor as the lead. What’s going on here?’ … One of the things that movie really captures is black fear of white spaces.” – Jordan Peele, Horror Noire
While Us is less explicitly about race than Get Out, it is rare to see in mainstream cinema black characters held up as the norm in contrast to dysfunctional white people (represented in the film by Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). One movie though that did so before was Wes Craven’s deranged off-the-wall 1991 horror comedy – The People Under the Stairs.
When young black boy Fool (an amazing Brandon Adams) and his cancer-stricken mother are to be kicked out of their apartment after falling behind in rent, the child decides to rob the evil white landlords. Breaking into their suburban home, he uncovers strange pale children locked in a dungeon-like basement.
The People Under the Stairs – like Us – is about class and society. Viewers come to learn the titular people are just poor children the true villains of the piece kidnapped and discarded when they did not suit them anymore. Meanwhile, as Fool discovers his landlord’s vast riches, he says aloud: “No wonder there’s no money in the ghetto!” Like Us, The People Under the Stairs is about how for one strain of society to prosper, another must be preyed upon. The two movies together follow a rebellion of a repressed people, rising from underground, overthrowing their suppressors and taking to the streets.
Key & Peele (2012 – 2015)
Lastly, let’s not forget that Jordan Peele is so great at tackling diverse genres and probing social commentary on account of his background in sketch comedy. See this in the below clip which follows two black men coming face to face with alien imposters.